September 27

More on E. coli O157:H7

6  comments

Both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times carried articles today on the recent problems with fresh spinach contaminated with E. coli O157: H7.
The New York Times article by devout low-fatter Marian Burros is full of good information, but completely misses the forest because of all of those trees in the way.
The article starts with a call for more regulation (just what we need) of the produce farming system. It makes a point that I was unaware of (and here I’m assuming the the NY Times fact checkers are accurate).

More outbreaks of disease are now traced to produce than to meat, poultry, fish, eggs and milk combined.

Based on this statement alone, the great unwashed masses might believe that spinich itself is the source of E. coli O157:H7, which is not the case. Since E. coli of all forms, including the virulent O157:H57 strain, are inhabitants of living mammal GI tracts and are not a part of normal plant fauna, it would seem strange that more disease involving E. coli would come from plants. The reason for this, of course, is that meat packing plants and other facilities handling animal products are maintained in a way to reduce the contamination of their products by E. coli. And most products of animal origin are cooked before eating, which kills E. coli. Plant foods, on the other hand, are often eaten raw.
The article goes on to speculate as to how the spinach contamination occured.

The source of the E. coli O157:H7 blamed in the current outbreak is unknown. It may be irrigation water reclaimed from sewage treatment. It may be unsanitary conditions on the farm. But there is increasing suspicion that the cause may be water runoff from the many cattle farms near the fields in the Salinas Valley of California, where produce tainted with the E. coli has caused eight outbreaks of illness since 1995.

Water contaminated with E. coli from cow manure may have been used for irrigation or may have been deposited on the fields by heavy spring rains and flooding.

Dr. Trevor Suslow, a microbiologist at the University of California at Davis, called this case “the catalyst, the tipping point.”

“This is a culmination of incidents that have been going on for 10 years and cattle have become the primary focus,” Dr. Suslow said. “Data from the last 23 years clearly demonstrate the potential for crop contamination from pathogenic E. coli in the watershed.”

So, everyone, it seems, is aware that cattle are the problem, but no one appears to understand that it is the corn feeding of cattle and the subsequent hyper-acidification of their GI tracts that allows this toxic strain to develop. Unless the cattle are corn fed, there isn’t a problem.
One of the ‘experts’ quoted above posits a fairly stupid solution to the problem:

Dr. Suslow asked the question on many critics’ minds: “Should cows be raised in close proximity to produce? Ideally you would like to see them well separated.”

I say stupid because it’s not the raising of cows that causes the problem; it’s how they’re fed out on corn before slaughter. If he had said that all feed lot operations should be separated from produce farm, I would agree.
If you look back at all the years of family farming in this country (and the world over) where the family cow grazed and was fed hay or other silage, you could probably count the number of cases of E. coli O157:H7 borne disease on the fingers of one foot. Since the focus seems to be cattle waste in general and not just that from corn-fed cattle, I can see a real problem brewing up for the cattle industry. If they were smart, the folks running PR for grass fed beef would be all over this situation.
Right now, though, the entities taking virtually all the fire are the spinach growers and packagers. Whenever any kind of widespread problem such as this recent outbreak of E. coli contaminated spinach occurs, the lawyers can’t be far behind.
The Wall Street Journal in an article titled ‘How a Tiny Law Firm Made Hay Out of Tainted Spinach’ tells of lawyers going after the deep pockets of Dole Food Co. and other larger produce handling firms. What’s amazing is how quickly these law firms can spring into action.

Before health officials warned the public about bad spinach, before grocers yanked fresh spinach off their shelves, before consumers cleaned out their refrigerators, the Seattle law firm Marler Clark had filed its first bad-spinach lawsuit.

Then, as word of the bacteria outbreak began to spread this month, lawyers at the firm posted messages on the firm’s E. coli blog, www.ecoliblog.com. They reached out to reporters and waited for the calls and emails to stream in. Now Marler Clark is representing 76 clients. Bill Marler, a 49-year-old partner in the firm, tracks them with Post-it Notes on a U.S. map hanging in his office.

If you’re considering filing suit because you’ve eaten tainted spinach, what kind of settlement can you expect?

Less-severe E. coli cases, with symptoms such as diarrhea, vomiting and dehydration, are usually worth between $25,000 and $500,000 when they are settled, Mr. Marler says. Those involving hemolytic uremic syndrome, or HUS, a potentially life-threatening disease that affects the kidneys and occurs in about 5% to 15% of E. coli patients, can run from $1 million to his highest HUS settlement of $15.6 million.

The problem is, as I see it, that these lawyers are going after the wrong people. As Bill Marler says when accused of being an ambulance chaser, look to the

industry reforms he says came about after he locked horns with companies. Jack in the Box Inc. raised its minimum burger-cooking temperatures to 155° from 140°; the company says the change was unrelated to the legal action. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention requires hospitals to report HUS cases. Odwalla, another defendant in a Marler Clark suit, began pasteurizing its juices following a 1996 E. coli outbreak.

If Mr. Marler and others went after the real culprits here, the corn-fed cattle business, not just the innocent bystanders, the spinach growers and packagers, they could accomplish some real good.
There is an old legal theory that goes something like this. Let’s say someone brings a lion in a cage into a community. He has the steel cage made with 2 inch diameter bars, and all the joints in the cage welded. He then has the whole affair wrapped with heavy chain, locked with multiple locks. Now let’s say (we don’t know how) that the lion escapes and mauls or maybe even kills someone in the community. Common law has it that the guy who brought the lion into the town in the first place is liable. Granted, he did everything possible to prevent the lion from escaping, but he still is the person who brought the lion and put people at risk.
In the case of the E. coli O157:H7 it would seem to me that the folks who corn feed the cattle are in the same position as the guy who brought the lion to town. The spinach growers and packagers would be more like the people who maybe welded the lion’s cage together. They’re sloppy job was complicate in allowing the lion to escape, but the real fault lies with the guy who exposed everyone to the lion in the first place.
You could take the whole thing a step further and ask who provides the information to those feeding cattle on corn. It’s none other than the good folks at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. If you don’t believe it, look in their manuals for cattle feeding. So, at it’s foundation, it’s our own government that has brought the lion to town.


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  1. Hello Dr. Eades,
    This discussion brought to mind something I read recently in regards to the paleo diet and dairy intake. As you know, dairy foods are one of the many to be avoided on the standard paleo diet, ala cordain, with the reasoning that it, along with grains, potatoes and corn, were not consumed until agriculture started.
    I agree that many people can have problems digesting dairy, but that a lot of that has to do with the quality of the dairy, and the way it is consumed (raw vs. pasteurized, plain vs. cultured). Therefore, in my recommendations to patients, I always say to try some of these “better” forms of dairy, and if they’re ok, go for it.
    However, I just came across some info suggesting that humans could have been herding and milking animals for a lot longer than agriculture has been around, and so could have been eating dairy for much longer than grains. This line of reasoning also suggests that there is no reason for herding to have followed with agriculture, as it was quite a bit easier to simply build a fence, herd the animals and milk them for an easy source of high quality protein and fat.
    If this is the case, then maybe dairy should be part of the paleo diet.
    Your thoughts, as always, are appreciated.
    Daniel Chong
    Hi Daniel–
    I’ve read that same theory, and I don’t really have a problem with good quality dairy products as long as people tolerate them okay.
    Dr. Cordain is doing some interesting work with the combination of milk and wheat that would give me pause to eat the two of them together. I would think, though, that the dairy without the wheat wouldn’t cause problems in most people not sensitive to dairy.
    Best–
    MRE

  2. Excellent article. I too fear that the heavy hand of government is going to weigh unfairly on the small farm/family farm that raises cattle on grass.
    The comment from the Dr. incorrectly suggesting that raising cattle separate from produce is the agricultural ideal is nonsense and is indicative of the startling level of ignorance of food production. Historically, the most productive type of farm has been one than relies on the symbiotic relationship between sun, soil, water, animals and plants.
    It was the replacement of solar farming for fossil fuels farming, the removal of traditional farm animals from the farm system and the monocropping of corn and soy that has led to the situation we currently face.
    I fear a mandatory push for chemical fertilizers, even for grass farmers, is just around the corner.
    Richard Morris
    breadandmoney.com
    Hi Richard–
    Thanks for the astute comment. You are absolutely correct about the farms (usually family) that rely on the symbiotic relationship between the animals and the plants producing the best food available. A case in point is Polyface Farm in Virginia. http://www.polyfacefarms.com/
    There cattle manure is used to build compost and enrich the soil, but the cattle aren’t fed out on corn, so there is no worry about O157:H7.
    Like you, I fear the bureaucrats will seize on this latest debacle and use it for an excuse to separate cattle from produce and cause huge problems for the small, family farm, which, in my opinion, produces the best food that can be bought.
    Best–
    MRE

  3. If the following from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, is correct, then there may have been good reason for early man to have milked animals such as cows and goats well before he started to cultivate plants. We know that some immunity is passed from the mother to her child via breast milk. Surely that is not unique to human mammals.
    “In recent years, there has been some consumer interest in raw milk products, due to perceived health benefits. Advocates of raw milk maintain, correctly, that some components survive in milk that has not been pasteurized. Specifically, raw milk contains immunoglobulins and the enzymes lipase and phosphatase, which are inactivated by heat. Raw milk also contains vitamin B6 of which up to 20% may be lost on heat treatment. It is also claimed to contain beneficial bacteria which aid digestion and boost immunity.”
    Hi Larry–
    The Wikepedia entry is accurate. Bovine colostrum is available today, and is a great supplement to ward off illness because of the immunoglobulins it contains. In fact, I’m going to post on that very issue soon. Question is, did Paleolithic man milk and use dairy products? It would seem to me that wild animals would not hold still long enough to be milked. If early man had domesticated animals so that they could be milked, it would seem reasonable that their would be archaeological evidence of this. As far as I know–and admittedly, I don’t keep up with the archaeological literature as much as I do the medical literature–this evidence hasn’t been found.
    Best–
    MRE

  4. Doc, you make great points about cattle and E. coli O157:H7 – the problem with going that far upstream is legal causation – what farm did it come from? However, the lettuce and spinach industry (at least the giant, bagged kind) needs to clean up its act and stop poisoning its customers. See prior outbreaks at: http://www.marlerblog.com/2006/09/articles/-legal-cases/source-for-past-e-coli-outbreaks/
    Hi Bill–
    Thanks for commenting.
    As George Bernard Shaw said (and I’m paraphrasing here): I find it hard to trust a man who tells me I need to have my gall bladder removed when he stands to make $500 by removing it. In the same way I find it hard to take seriously the claim that the lettuce and spinach packing industry is ‘poisoning its customers’ by someone who stands to make considerably more than $500 by pressing that point in court.
    God knows there are many things that go on within the medical profession that make perfect sense to those in the profession but are totally mystifying to those without. I’m sure the same goes with the legal profession. One of those things is just what you referred to in your comment. It’s difficult to trace the problem back to its true source, so instead attorney’s find someone lower in the food chain who is less culpable but who has deep pockets (an absolute necessity), and that’s who they go after. Is that justice? I’m not a lawyer, so I don’t know. But within the legal profession, is that considered justice?
    I have no dog in this fight since I’m involved in neither the food packaging business nor in the feedlot business, but I am a little worried about the inevitable appearance of the law of unintended consequences. My concern is that in all the finger pointing bound to take place the fact that it is the corn feeding of cattle that creates the problem will get lost in the hoopla. Regulators, who are always looking for something to regulate, won’t differentiate between corn-fed and range-fed cattle; they will deem the waste from both to be a danger and by edict force the separation of both from any produce growing operation, which could be the death knell for many of the small family farms that I think produce the best food to be had in this country.
    Cheers–
    MRE

  5. Great article Mike! Regarding milking wild paleo-animals, I’m inclined to think that since humans are also able to lactate and that instinct has been always with us, Paleolithic man may not have had the need to milk any other animals.
    I look forward for your blog entry on bovine colostrum and its uses. From the immunological standpoint, I’d be interested to know about the human response (or lack thereof) to foreign antibodies. It’s well known that the introduction of antibodies of different species, unless they are ‘humanized’, doesn’t come without risk and problems. That is a common problem with antidotes to snake venom, for example, which is sometimes produced in horses. While the antiserum contains the necessary antibodies to neutralize the snake toxin, it also provides foreign proteins to which the body reacts. The immune reaction against horse antibodies puts a lot of stress in the kidneys due to the excessive formation and even deposition of immune complexes that can also affect the skin and joint. It’s the basic concept behind type-III hypersensitivity. Perhaps the difference is in the way bovine colostrum is administered. Your coming discussion on that issue will be most informative.
    On a related note about how cattle are fed, I just heard a commercial on the radio from a business in town. In an attempt of making consumers aware of their ‘good’ farming practices, they say (and proudly), ‘our cattle are of the best quality… corn fed and free from antibiotics or hormones! Go figure!
    Hi Gabe–
    Thanks for the comment. I hope the bovine colostrum blog will be worthwhile.
    Best–
    MRE

  6. Dr. Eades;
    Have you had any further thoughts or written anything about bovine Colostrum since the time of this post? I was unable to locate anything else you had written on the subject.
    Jamie
    Haven’t written anything more. Still use it myself if I feel like I’m coming down with something.

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